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Gates at Harvard: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

By Kate Golden on June 8, 2007No Comment

Bill Gates began working on his Harvard commencement speech – delivered yesterday to 15,000 graduates and attendees – in December.  He read Nobel Prize acceptance speeches by Einstein, Marie Curie, Enrico Fermi, and Robert Koch.  He participated in several brainstorming sessions with selected staff members.   He studied the commencement speeches of Bill Clinton and Bono.  He wrote six drafts.  He was given tips on delivery and tone by Warren Buffet.  Earlier this week, he practiced it at a podium in his office.  He read it aloud to Melinda on Wednesday on the flight to Boston.

So what did he have to say? 

Finding inspiration in the text of George Marshall’s 1947 speech at Harvard, in which the general outlined his plan for relieving Europe from the devastation of World War II, Gates’s commencement theme yesterday was on relieving global inequities in health, wealth, and education. 

I learned a lot here at Harvard about new ideas in economics and politics.  I got great exposure to the advances being made in science.  But humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries – but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity.  Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity – reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.

Marshall told his audience that the “enormous complexity” of the challenges facing postwar Europe made it “virtually impossible” for the man on the street to “grasp at all the real significance of the situation.”  This struck Gates, who believes that it is oftentimes complexity that keeps people from acting.  He incorporated this sentiment into his own speech.

The barrier to change is not too little caring; it is too much complexity…Finding solutions is essential if we want to make the most of our caring.  If we have clear and proven answers any time an organization or individual asks “How can I help?” than we can get action – and we can make sure that none of the caring in the world is wasted.  But complexity makes it hard to mark a path of action for everyone who cares – and that makes it hard for their caring to matter. 

He went on to recommend a four-point plan for addressing a complex problem:  determine a goal, find the highest-leverage approach, discover the ideal technology for that approach, and, until that discovery, make the smartest application of the technology you do have.  He used the AIDS epidemic as an example, the goal being, of course, to end the disease.  The highest-leverage approach is prevention, the ideal technology a single dose vaccine that gives lifetime immunity.  Until that vaccine is discovered, however, the best prevention approach is to get people to avoid risky behavior. 

The final step – after seeing the problem and finding an approach – is to measure the impact of your work and share your successes and failures so that others learn from your efforts.   

Gates reminded those in the audience that they have been blessed with talent, privilege, and opportunity, and that the world expects great things from them.  He asked them to take on an issue, to not let complexity stop them in their quests to improve the world.

And I hope you will come back here to Harvard 30 years from now and reflect on what you have done with your talent and your energy.  I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deepest inequities…on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.

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